Olympics: Ladies first in Sochi's Black Sea bubble

SOCHI, Russia (AFP) - Kim Yu Na, Sara Takanashi and Mikaela Shiffrin have the task of dragging the Winter Olympics out of Sochi's Black Sea bubble and transforming a spectacle so long bullied by its brash summer cousin.

With the Russian resort under security lockdown, and with US$50 billion (S$63.8 billion) lavished on the Feb 7-23 showpiece, the likes of figure skater Kim, ski jumper Takanashi and teenage slalom queen Shiffrin are set to be headline-makers.

Their grace and power will undoubtedly overshadow even Ole Einar Bjoerndalen.

He's the 40-year-old Norwegian biathlete who has 11 medals stretching back to 1994 and needs just one more to join compatriot Bjorn Daehlie as the most decorated winter Olympian of all time.

The fact that biathlon struggles to be TV-friendly is symptomatic of the Winter Olympics' struggles to break out of its core markets - there will be around 3,000 competitors at Sochi compared to 10,500 who took part in London's Summer Olympics.

At least Kim has the advantage of figure skating's wider exposure.

The 23-year-old South Korean world champion is the defending gold medallist from Vancouver in 2010, although she heads to Sochi slowly building her form after suffering a right foot injury.

"I'm in good shape," said Kim, as she bids to become just the third woman to win back-to-back Olympic figure skating titles and the first since Germany's Katarina Witt in 1984 and 1988.

Kim will quit after Sochi, as will her Japanese rival Mao Asada, the 2008 and 2010 world champion and silver medallist at Vancouver.

Japan failed to win a single gold four years ago, but in 17-year-old Takanashi, they should bury that statistic as women's ski jumping makes its historic bow at the Games.

Takanashi has already captured 10 of 13 World Cup rounds this season, finding time to also win the world junior title last month.


Her major rival, Sarah Hendrickson of the United States (US), is taking part but the 19-year-old is still finding her way back after suffering a cruciate ligament injury in a fall in August.

Women's ski jumping is not the only new arrival in Russia.

In all, 12 more golds will be won this time thanks to the addition to the Games programme of, for example, a team event in figure skating as well as slopestyle as the X-Games complexion of freestyle and snowboarding becomes even more important to the portfolio.

However, the Sochi debut of the spectacular slopestyle has been far from smooth with Norway's gold medal favourite Torstein Horgmo hospitalised after crashing on a course widely condemned as too dangerous.

"The riders need to speak up about the conditions," said Ireland snowboarder Seamus O'Connor.

In Alpine skiing, the US will look to shrug off the injury-enforced absence of Lindsey Vonn by pinning their hopes on 18-year-old slalom queen Shiffrin, the world champion and winner of last year's World Cup crystal globe.

Norway's Aksel Lund Svindal looks unstoppable in the downhill and Super-G while Austria's Marcel Hirscher is the World Cup leader in slalom, giant slalom and overall this season.

However, the erratic talents of Bode Miller, now 36, and with five Olympic medals to his credit, may have an impact as should American compatriot Ted Ligety in the technical events.

Japan will look to Yuzuru Hanyu, Tatsuki Machida and Daisuke Takahashi, the 2010 Vancouver bronze medallist, to challenge Canada's Patrick Chan, the triple world champion, for the men's figure skating title.

But former champion Yevgeny Plushenko, the 2006 Turin gold medallist, will thrive on home support after controversially winning selection.

The raw power of ice hockey superpowers Canada, the defending champions, and old rivals the United States, should again see them into the gold medal match-up.

Whoever gets there, a host of NHL stars such as Canada's Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin of Russia, will light up the competition.

Ovechkin will be cheered on by tennis star fiancee Maria Kirilenko battling for flashbulb space with Russian rival Maria Sharapova, who is at the Games as a presenter for US broadcaster NBC, showcasing segments of her childhood home town.

One star certain to be missing is China's most decorated winter Olympian, Wang Meng.

The 28-year-old speedskater has a broken ankle and will miss the opportunity to add to her four gold career haul.

That will be a bitter blow for China, as she took three of the national team's five gold medals at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.

Away from the serious medal contenders, many eyes will be on the return to the Games of the Jamaican bobsleigh team looking to summon the spirit of their 1998 Olympic show which inspired the Hollywood movie, Cool Runnings.

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